Senior Curator Julian Stray takes a whistle-stop tour through a curious part of rural life...
The Postal Museum has a number of whistles in its collection. There are examples produced as ‘give-aways’ during Public Relation events, a whistle used during Communication Workers Union protest, and there is even an example of one used by ARP (Air Raid Protection) Wardens during the Second World War. However, most of the examples in the museum collection are of very similar design and purpose. These are Postmen’s Whistles.
Postmen’s whistles form a small but intriguing presence within the museum collection. The number of people alive today that recall their use in service may be dwindling, but they are a lasting and tangible artefact of a rural postal practice that has now ceased.
How would they have sounded? Well, we have a recording of a two chambered Metropolitan whistle, as issued to postmen, manufactured by J. Hudson:
The sound is a double note, delivered simultaneously. When tested by the Metropolitan Police in 1883, they reported that the whistle could be heard well up to 900 yards, indistinctly at 1000 yards.
Mostly as a result of the introduction of a Post Office Parcels Post in 1883, postmen were issued with a measuring tape and pocket spring balance in order to determine the correct postage rate. Postmen also carried a small stock of postage stamps to sell to the public, a practice long since dispensed with. Additionally, Rule 24 of ‘Rules for Rural Postmen’ required of the rural postman: ‘He must carry a Horn or loud whistle, especially on his inward walk, to let the public know of his coming’.
These whistles were not supplied by the department; instead, postmen were expected to provide these at their own expense. A similar rule had also applied to Mail Car Drivers, but that had been abolished due to the nuisance the noise caused to the public at early or late hours. The rules altered over time, as can be seen in this example from 1931.
The earliest account I can find proposing the official issue of whistles is from 1902: the Post Office Secretary in Edinburgh requested authority to purchase two whistles for the use of temporary postmen. This was refused but the matter of departmental supply had now been raised.
When official issue of whistles to rural postmen commenced in 1906, these were the ‘Metropolitan’ model supplied by Birmingham based J. Hudson & Co., the leading whistle manufacturer of the 20th century. This company is still making whistles today, the firm now being called Acme Whistles after another of their famous whistle models. The Metropolitan was the famed model of whistle used since 1884 by uniformed police officers. Even the explorer Henry Stanley used a Metropolitan whistle to communicate with members of his party on expeditions in Africa.
The great majority of the whistles are nickel plated brass and were manufactured at Hudson’s Barr Street premises. Most were stamped with the letters ‘G.P.O.’, later with simply ‘P.O.’. The quantity of whistles in the museum collection not carrying these initials suggests that some Metropolitan models supplied or used by postmen were not so-stamped.
Once official issue commenced, Rural Postmen were reminded of the correct use of the whistles, or occasionally horns, provided. On the outward journey a whistle was blown to call people who lived off the route but who preferred to meet the main postman, rather than wait until a later hour of delivery at their hall door by a branch postman.
Whistles were also used to alert people, who had their post-box some distance from their home, that mail had been delivered to them. Postmen might also be making collections of letters, either on their outward or inward journey. Whistles were also blown by the postman when approaching any point where he was in the habit of collecting letters etc. to enable the public to meet him on the roadside. If collecting posted mail from a rural letter box, whistles could be blown to ensure the public were aware that a collection was being made.
Whistles were a personal issue and did not have to be handed back if the postman left the duty, unless they were temporary staff. Because there was some official concern regarding the transference of infectious diseases, any whistles handed back were supposed to be sterilised in boiling water prior to being passed to the next incumbent.
There are examples of whistles stamped ‘GPO’ manufactured by other firms. However these are extremely uncommon and, sadly, no examples are held by The Postal Museum. It is possible that some manufacturers may have named or stamped their products in such a manner to suggest official sanction, or imply good service of the type provided by the Post Office. A similar practice existed with ‘GPO’ bicycles.
The author is uncertain when the issue of whistles ceased, or when the practice of blowing them whilst on delivery came to an end. Certainly it had stopped by the 1980s. ‘Rules for Postmen’, printed in 1975, were still carrying the instruction- ‘A whistle to be used for letting the persons on his walk know of his approach, especially on his inward journey’.
– Julian Stray, Senior Curator